Is Operational Control Flawed?

Let me start by saying that operational control is critical. If you are running an airline or charter company, it should be a big deal. Lots of legal issues tied to the Operations Specifications and the FAR’s that govern this topic.

Also, full disclaimer – I am not a legal person. Like most people in the flying business, I interpret the regulations as best I can.


Operational Control

The flight regulations define operational control as “exercising of authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight”. Here’s the problem –

It’s a false belief in the meaning of control.


Here’s the actual definition of control:

“the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events”


Quite a disconnect between that and the authority to initiate or terminate a flight.

Most things in aviation are designed for safety. I have no doubt that operational control is written for that reason but it is not comprehensive enough.

I fully agree with the FAA that operators need to know what airplane we are getting on, who is responsible for that flight and ensuring the flight is being followed.  However, that’s not going to help anyone when the crewmembers are poorly trained, lack command experience and fail to understand crew resource management.

One could argue that it’s not the point of operational control. It’s a fair argument.

Here’s my argument – Authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight is nice to know but when lives are lost during the “termination” of a flight, does the operator really have control?


Execuflight  – November 10, 2015 

On November 10, 2015, Execuflite #1526, a British Aerospace HS 125-700A (Hawker 700A) departed controlled flight while on a non-precision localizer approach to runway 25 at Akron-Fulton International Airport and impacted a four-unit apartment building in Akron, Ohio.  The captain, first officer, and seven passengers died; no one on the ground was injured.  The airplane was destroyed by the impact forces and postcrash fire. (NTSB: CEN16MA036)


As far as everything I have read, the operator exercised operational control in terms of flight dispatch, flight following,weather, alternates, etc.




No issues –

Except that their training was bad, their backgrounds ignored and their experience was highly questionable.

(Photo: OSHP)







The NTSB found that the pilots did not follow checklists and violated company procedures as they approached and landed at the airport in Akron. The investigation further revealed that both the captain and first officer had been fired by their previous employers – the captain for failing to show up for recurrent training and the first officer for performance deficiencies.

Execuflight hadn’t checked why the pilots had been fired from previous employers for training problems and gave the captain a passing grade for a test he failed, according to investigators.

Comment from the CEO- 

“Planes just generally don’t fall out of the sky. I can tell you that they were very well seasoned pilots, both of them. They like to fly together.  We monitor the flights leg by leg since it started and it’s typical for them to give us a doors open, doors closed message, we’ve got them all.”


Acceptable operational control, disastrous organizational control. 


The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the accident was “the flight crew’s mismanagement of he approach and multiple deviations form company standard operating procedures, which placed the airplane in an unsafe situation and led to an unstabilized approach,  a descent below MDA without visual contact with the runway environment, and an aerodynamic stall.

Contributing to the accident were Execuflight’s casual attitude toward compliance with standards; it’s inadequate hiring, training and operational oversight of the flight crew; the company’s lack of a formal safety program; and the FAA’s insufficient oversight of the company’s training program and flight operations.”



Organizational Control

We should be striving for organizational control not just operational control.

Accident causation typically occurs at an organizational level.  Significant holes in the swiss cheese model begin to line up.

All the operational control in the world (as I interpret it), would not have saved one person on this airplane.  An anonymous report made within an SMS, with structure that focuses on action, might have.

Operational control certainly has it’s place and is a very important legal component of commercial flying.  However, it would be a mistake to correlate operational control with organizational control.  They are simply not the same.

If you were sitting in the back, which control would be more important to you?


Jason Keith is the founder and managing director of Aviation Linq.

At Aviation Linq, we are committed to assisting small and mid-sized Part 135 & 91 operators with risk management and operational efficiency.